Category Archives: General

General posts about Freeform Games

Jubensha script murder games

I hadn’t heard of Jubensha until a few days ago, but Jubensha script murder games are a kind of Chinese murder mystery game – and they’re huge!

Here’s the video that introduced them to me. (You don’t need to watch the whole thing – the first five or ten minutes give you a pretty good idea of what jubensha involves.)

If you’ve watched that, you’re probably thinking the same thing I am: Jubensha murder games are just like Freeform Games murder mystery games.

There’s a murder to solve, but there are other things to do as well. Everyone has their own character, it’s unscripted, and it’s up to everyone how they try to achieve their goals. Plus there’s an independent person running the game.

Freeform jubensha?

There are three big differences that I can see:

  • First, while there are now lots of boxed products you can purchase (albeit in Chinese), it seemed they started in jubensha rooms – a kind of cross between one of our games and an escape room.
  • Second, we design our games for a wide range of players. If the video is anything to go by, most Jubensha are for six players. (We only have a couple of games that small.)
  • Third, the murder is more structured in jubensha than in our games. (Some characters in our games may not be interested in the murder at all.)

Social mixing

One point the video makes is how good jubensha is at introducing people who don’t know each other. I’m not great in large groups where I don’t know people, but that’s never been a problem in this kind of game, as you’re given plenty to talk about.

Jubensha-adjacent

I think our games are probably Jubensha-adjacent. There are a lot of similarities – and if you think you might enjoy Jubensha, you’d probably enjoy one of our games.

So if you’re looking for a Jubensha-adjacent game, here are some suggestions:

A Will to Murder: A 1930s murder mystery game for 6 to 9 guests and a host. Set in an English country house, the patriarch of a wealthy family is dead – who murdered him? And who will inherit his fortune? Recommended for ages 18+.

Murder on the Istanbul Express: A 1914 murder mystery game set aboard the luxurious Istanbul Express for 7 to 11 guests and one host. Characters include the train crew, merchants, inventors – and spies! Recommended for ages 12+.

Dazzled to Death: A 1948 murder mystery game for 12 to 15 guests and a host. Blackmail, theft and betrayal a glittering Massachusetts cocktail party. (Includes, free of charge, a Christmas version.) Recommended for ages 15+.

Or see our full list of games here.

Le Pharaon Maudit

France Murder, our French partner has just published Le Pharaon Maudit, a translation of Curse of the Pharaoh.

Le Pharaon Maudit is a murder mystery game for 7 to 19 guests and is set at an archaeological dig in Egypt in the 1890s.

There’s also an introductory video on along with photos of the playtest, both on Facebook.

Click here to learn more about Le Pharaon Maudit.

Our games by year…

Following on from our birthday post last month, I thought it would be interesting to show when we published each game. I’ve excluded translations to keep things simple…

2001

2002

2003

2004

2005

2006

2007

2009

2010

2011

2012

2013

2014

2015

2018

2019

  • Christmas Lies (the festive version of Hollywood Lies) by Steve Hatherley

2020

2021

2022

2023

One of the things that amazes me is how my memory has changed everything. I think of A Speakeasy Murder as one of our newer games, but it’s now over seven years old! And was it really in 2009 when we published The Karma Club?

Looking back: 20 years on

Twenty years ago, on 9th October 2001, Freeform Games was incorporated.

So that’s the day we celebrate as our birthday.

We made our first sale ten weeks later, on 17th December.

In 2001…

There was no iPhone, iPad, Facebook or Twitter. Google was three years old, and Amazon was nothing like the behemoth it is now. And Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 5 was the most common internet browser.

Payment over the Internet was relatively novel when we started, so we still accepted checks/ cheques. Not that checks have been popular – we’ve processed fewer than ten checks in 20 years.

Our first game was Death on the Gambia. It was initially more complicated: combat was fiddlier, you could catch river fever, and each character had a success or failure epilogue depending on how the player felt they did. We’ve simplified our games since then to make them easier to run.

In our early games, some characters had more abilities than others. In our more recent games, everyone has just three abilities.

Over time, we’ve improved our games’ layout to make them easier to run and play. We’re also more consistent with our look and feel so that when you buy a Freeform Games murder mystery game, you know what you’re getting. (Although we still have a backlog of games to update into the latest format.)

Foreign-language games

We live in the UK, and we initially expected that most of our customers would be here and in other English-speaking countries. But it quickly became clear that offering downloadable PDFs instead of physical games meant that people from all over the world would be keen to join the party.

We’ve had customers in 84 countries (at least—PayPal doesn’t always tell us where a customer is based). However, about two-thirds of our customers come from the USA—by far our biggest market.

We offered our first translated murder mystery in 2003 (Tod auf dem Gambia – a German translation of Death on the Gambia), and we offer 13 translated games. We now have two partners, Die Besten Familienspiele in Germany and FranceMurder in France.

Curse of the Pharaoh – played in New Zealand

Challenges

The last 20 years have not been without their challenges.

Our biggest challenge has undoubtedly been the pandemic, where our sales dropped off a cliff in March 2020. However, as we reported in January, things have been picking up ever since and hopefully will continue to improve as we learn to live with coronavirus.

Other challenges have included unreliable web hosts (in one case causing us to lose a week’s traffic in October, our busiest period) and changes to Google’s algorithm.

We get most of our traffic from Google, and as they have been trying to weed out low-quality sites from their search results, we have occasionally been affected by those changes. But as you might expect, we only remember the changes that affect us negatively – we don’t remember the good changes!

Murder on the Istanbul Express – our latest game

20 years old

We had no idea that 20 years later we would still be running Freeform Games, with over 30 games to our name.

But we’re happy we are – and here’s to the next 20 years!

Death in Venice – an online murder mystery for lockdown

We’ve just released another game specifically designed to be played online during this unprecedented lockdown – Death in Venice.

Death in Venice is for 5-9 players (and one host) and is again designed to be played using video chat (Zoom, Hangouts, or whatever your favourite is).

Last night at the glamorous Venice Film Festival, controversial award-winning director Clay McFarland was dead in front of St Mark’s Cathedral – hacked to death with a meat cleaver.

Clay’s movie, Never Look Back, won the festival’s prestigious Golden Lion award last night. After the post-awards party, the cast and crew and their guests returned to the Casanova, the luxury yacht they are using for the festival. All except Clay, who remained behind – and who never returned.

Everyone now is confined to their cabins aboard the Casanova, while the police start their investigation. The only way they can communicate is online.

As cathedral bells toll out across the ancient city, on board the Casanova a frothy ferment of vineyards, memoirs, gossip, jealousy, and movie-set punch-ups will come to the boil.

Charge your glasses, put on your designer sunglasses, and and join the cast and crew of Never Look Back as they try to solve the mystery of death in Venice!

Learn more about Death in Venice here.

New lockdown murder mystery – Reunion of Death

To help with those Coronavirus lockdown blues, we’ve just released our latest game – Reunion with Death.

Reunion with Death is for 6-9 players (and one host as usual) and has been written to be played online in lockdown, using video chat. We’ve included detailed instructions for using Google Hangouts, but you can use any system that you are familiar with.

Reunion with Death is set at a 15-year high-school reunion, in smallish-town America. Former students are gathering in the town’s main hotel, ahead of the big party tonight. But one of them, former prom queen Mikolette Lukanis, has been found murdered!

Everyone is locked in their individual hotel rooms, pending a full police investigation – they only way they can communicate is using the hotel’s video system. High-school rivalries will re-emerge, old grudges and secrets will surface: along with a heady mix of present-day envy, betrayal, and lust.

Restock the minibar, put on your complementary terrycloth robe and slippers, hang out the ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign, and join the alumni of Holborrow High as they prepare for their reunion with Death!

Learn more about Reunion with Death here.

“Best” Murder Mystery Parties

Here’s a roundup of murder mystery party games by Hexagamers. They’ve taken a good long look at the various murder mystery companies that you can find on the internet and are trying them out to judge which really are the best.

Happily, we’re in the list – but they have yet to try one of our games. We’re looking forward to their feedback when they do.

Unbiased reviews

One of the things they talk about is the lack of unbiased reviews on the internet. Everyone puts testimonials from satisfied customers on their sites – and we do it here: Your murder mystery stories.

But they do point out the lack of negative reviews. After all, as a company we’re incentivised only to put up the good stories. That’s only human nature, obviously, but it’s not the only story. Most of the time we only receive positive reviews – and I think that’s because if the party has gone well, then people like to share their enjoyment. If it hasn’t gone well, they’re less likely to want to send us feedback.

But the point about unbiased reviews remains.

There are options for unbiased reviews such as Trustpilot, so that’s something we might explore.

Facebook likes

It’s also interesting to see how many Facebook likes the other companies have. We don’t push Facebook particularly hard and so we haven’t chased Facebook likes, but clearly we could do a bit better.

Playing A Will to Murder

Cornelius and Janice conspiring on the balcony

We don’t often get to play our games, but last weekend I played in A Will to Murder.

Guy, one of my tabletop roleplaying friends, had bought A Will to Murder, and wanted to try one it with some of his friends. Although he didn’t ask me to run it (I thought he was going to), I said I was happy to play when I heard he was organising it.

Luckily, I couldn’t remember the plot of A Will to Murder. I last read it back in 2010, when I was proofreading it for Mo (who wrote it). Seven years is enough time for me to have completely forgotten about it, particularly given that I’ve not played it.

(So that explains why, if you ask a question about one of our older games, sometimes I’m a little slow in replying: I’m busy refreshing my memory. I’m pretty sure Mo has a much better memory.)

Even if I had remembered the plot, I would still have been happy to play and help make up the numbers. (If that had happened, I wouldn’t have played to win – that wouldn’t have worked as I would have known too many game secrets. Instead I would have played to help give everyone else a good time.)

Guy cast me as Alan Trode, the motorcycle dealer/mechanic who has married into the dysfunctional O’Leary family. The costume hint suggested biking leathers or denim jacket, so I wore a pair of jeans and a leather jacket – although it was so hot (we played in June, on the hottest day of the year so far) that I only wore the jacket for a few minutes.

Alan and Corey inside (with Janis and Cornelius on the balcony outside)

We played A Will to Murder with the minimum of six players. I think A Will to Murder works better with slightly more players, but a couple of players who had promised to attend had to drop out. A Will to Murder still works fine with six, but it would have been better with more.

None of the other players had played a Freeform Games murder mystery before (and Guy hadn’t run one either). Apart from a slightly slow start, though, they all seemed to take to it like old hands.

From what I could see, the slow start was partly because most of the players knew each other well (and had some catching up to do) and also because we only had six players. With few players, it’s possible that everyone in your Tips for Beginners is already talking to someone else. So that means you must:

  • Interrupt, which isn’t a natural action for a reserved Brit like myself.
  • Strike up a conversation with someone else with someone you don’t know. You should do this anyway, but at the start of a game conversations with someone your character doesn’t really know can be a bit awkward as nobody wants to give anything away too soon.
  • Wait (which is what happens after you’ve finished that awkward conversation in the bullet point above…).

I’m not going to talk about the plot of A Will to Murder because, well, spoilers, but I’m happy to report that for me, I had a relatively successful game (as measured by number of goals achieved, which isn’t a proper measure of success). I had four goals, and I succeeded in two of them. As one of them was effectively impossible (keeping a secret is always doomed to failure in one of our games!) I regard that as two out of three. That’s pretty good for me – I’m often hopeless at achieving my character’s goals.

Regina and Gillian

And that’s not really how I measure success anyway. It’s all about whether I had a good time – and I certainly did. I enjoyed the game, I enjoyed watching everyone get into character, and I enjoyed the stories and the laughing at the end as everyone’s secrets were revealed.

So overall I had a lovely time playing A Will to Murder. I met new people, and hopefully I will get to run another game for them soon.

Playtesting Death on the Rocks

IMG_6111

Back on 20th July we ran a playtest of our new game Death on the Rocks, in London.

Playtesting is an important part of our development process. However well a murder mystery game’s been written and edited, it can’t be considered finished until it’s been thoroughly tested.

We call it ‘playtesting’ because it takes the form of playing through the game in the normal sort of way that you would if you’d bought it yourself. We aim to make it as close as possible to what your experience is going to be like! The only difference is that afterwards, we ask the guests a bunch of questions about how it went for them.

Testing, testing…

Our usual preferred pattern is to run at least three playtests, once the game is complete in draft.

  • First, the author of the game playtests it themselves, on their own family and friends. This will reveal any elements that basically don’t work, or serious timing issues, or where something important isn’t being communicated properly to the player.
  • Second, once all those things have been fixed, we run a playtest ourselves; using experienced players who can be relied upon to identify inconsistencies, imbalance, characters without enough to do, characters for whom the game starts or finishes too quickly or slowly, and if there are any subtle problems with any new rules or bits of system that we’ve introduced for this game.
  • Finally, once all that’s been sorted out, we send the game out to a new host who’s never seen it before, and they run a party for their guests exactly as if they’d just bought the game. This is particularly helpful for exposing any parts of the host’s instructions that aren’t explained clearly, and also for how well the game works when there are less than the optimum number of characters. It’s also good for cultural differences: as most of our customers are in the USA, we like to have a US-based host run an eye over the game – particularly if it’s been written by a UK-based author, as most of ours are.

Any or all of these stages will get repeated more than once if there are serious problems that need re-testing after fixing.

So anyway, for Death on the Rocks it was actually a combination of stages one and two. Jessica the author wasn’t able to test the game herself, as she lacked the facilities. So we decided that as it was a pretty straightforward game with no new rules or complications, we would run a test together with her, using our experienced playtesters.

A cellarful of murder

IMG_6183

We held the event in the basement room of a pub in central London that we’ve used a few times before for playtests. They know us now, so they’re happy to let the murderous mayhem proceed unabated! We usually use either London or here in Ipswich where we’re based, simply because it’s easier to rustle up 20 or so players for a given date in those places. We would like to run playtests elsewhere too, to spread the love, but it’s been difficult getting enough people together.

We ran the test over a Sunday afternoon, between 2 and 6. Most of our customers’ parties are in the evening, but that’s not quite so convenient when we have to think about last trains back home and so on. Customers’ parties often involve a good deal of drinking, too! – but we prefer to keep that restrained at playtests. The feedback at the end of the game might not be quite so useful otherwise!

How did it go?

IMG_6254

Really well! Death on the Rocks is a game that we’ve been working on for quite a while – Jessica actually first came to us with the idea as far back as 2006! – so we were pretty confident that it would work properly. It’s always nice to have that confirmed, though!

Our playtesters gave us some excellent feedback on details that need attention, but generally they were very happy with the characters, with pacing, with how much they had to do, and so on. One general concern was that the murder was too difficult to solve – several of them did identify the murderer correctly, but by suspicion rather than by following the intended clue trail. So we’re going to make the clues a bit more prominent, and spread knowledge of them around a few more people.

Next up

So those changes are in process now, and in a few weeks we’ll be sending the revised and improved version of the game to our next tester. This is Matthias, who’ll be running his playtest around the end of August–beginning of September. We’re looking forward to hearing what he and his guests make of Death on the Rocks!

Cafe Casablanca from the GM’s perspective

Last year I talked about how Mo and I attended The King’s Musketeers, a weekend long freeform. This year’s weekend game was Cafe Casablanca, and while Mo played Philip Marlowe, I was one of the six “directors” (ie, a host).

Mo as Marlowe
Mo, looking very dapper as Philip Marlowe

Cafe Casablanca is based on Hollywood thrillers and wartime dramas of the ‘30s and ‘40s – particularly those starring Humphrey Bogart such as Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep.

Cafe Casablanca is broadly very like one of our games, but much much bigger. To get a sense of how much bigger Cafe Casablanca is…

Cafe Casablanca needed six directors – and we were busy for the entire game.

But that’s not surprising – we had 74 players to manage!

Cafe Casablanca took an entire weekend to play – from Friday evening through to Sunday lunch. I’ve worked out that we generated about 1300 hours of person-hours of entertainment!

I was the Harbour Director and responsible for overseeing all the mischief being done in the harbour. That’s another difference with our games – Cafe Casablanca had very definite locations, from the harbour, to the police headquarters, the Gestapo office, Rick’s Bar and the casbah.

Playing Cafe Casablanca
Cafe Casablanca in full flow

The harbour turned out to be quite an exciting place – I was never bored. I oversaw art robberies, sabotage, salvage operations (there were all sorts of things hiding in the harbour), shark attacks, and even a raid on a battleship!

Character envelopes
74 character envelopes!

It took us hours to complete all the character envelopes for this game – but that’s not surprising given that they contained:

  • A character booklet (typically 8 pages of tiny print)
  • The rules booklet
  • Extra rules for those that needed it, such as the gang wars that were going on in the casbah
  • Complicated name badges containing secret codes and symbols (that some people could read)
  • Abilities, including heart abilities and romantic requests
  • Cards for the the romance mechanic
  • Cards to allow certain shady characters to cheat at gambling.
  • Stickers for the poison and pickpocket rules
  • Contingency envelopes
  • Lots of items, including some with props, such as passports.

It was interesting to see how things have developed over the last few years. Cafe Casablanca was originally written over 20 years ago, and I’d do some things differently these days. For example, it wasn’t particularly easy to prepare. We provide a guide for preparing character envelopes in our instructions, but there was no such thing for Cafe Casablanca – there were various documents here and there, but no master.

But then I doubt Cafe Casablanca was ever written with the intention of being regularly re-run, so making that sort of thing easy probably wasn’t high on their agenda. We make our games as easy to prepare as we can because we hope they are going to be played many times!

Anyway, next year’s weekend long freeform is Lullaby of Broadway, which is inspired by Broadway musicals. And I’m going to be playing again.